Sunday, July 19, 2015

Home Again--One out of Two Could be Better

“…we still have two more branches, and two out of three ain’t bad.”  
--Jack Nicholson, in his role as US President in the campy movie Mars Attack, after the US Capitol was destroyed.

The Queen didn't wave back to us
Well, half of the Ron & Kathy duo are home, and one out of two ain’t bad, but it could be more fun if both of us were here together.  We had a nice breakfast with Shanti and Alan in London last Sunday morning, then started our 18 hour journey home.  It was nice to be back, but 36 hours later, Kathy was back on a plane to Burbank, CA for eight days for her volunteer role as a board member of the Assistance League. 

We're not complaining--as life is so good for both of us, even if we don't get to experience everything together. Salem is so nice in the summer, and I'm luxuriating in all its delights.  The annual art fair  and festival is a the quintessential essence of summer in Salem.  That and the Saturday Market, bicycling, barbecues, other festivals, our fabric of friends, and everything else that makes this such a great place.

Alsace France?  No, 11 miles from home by bike Friday
Their flat on top floor
Shanti & Kathy beneath the streets of London
Our last two days in London were quite a contrast from the rural and laid-back countryside.  London is so cosmopolitan. Unlike the Cotswolds, the place was alive with young people of all ethnicites.  Like New York City, it takes a lot of energy and money to live there. So much hustle and bustle, but no matter what, the people we encountered were so polite and helpful. The Greek crisis, ISIS, and the government's new budget totally dominated the news, and it was interesting to get the British perspective on them.  

We enjoyed walking neighborhoods, seeing a few sites, riding the bus and tube, and above all, hanging out with Shanti and Alan.  We got to experience the Uber driving service first hand, and we must say, it is nothing short of impressive! The drivers were all interesting people from all over the world, even though they have lived in London for years.  All of them make more money now than they did previously as bus drivers, Mc Donalds managers, or other occupations.

High Street in St. Johns area
Restroom door in Chinatown

Shanti and Alan's flat warming party was really fun. The kitchen seemed smaller than the one in our Airstream, but by London standards, it was a large flat, especially the living room area.  The party felt like we were at the United Nations. Their friends were all so intelligent and interesting.  I was definitely the oldest, and probably the dumbest one there.  

What's next?  Kathy comes home on Wednesday :)  That leaves us with two weeks of a beautiful July in Salem together.  Then we're off to Boston to see Skyler,  her boyfriend Spencer, and their dogs. Spencer will be singing with the Boston Pops at Tanglewood, so we can hardly wait.  We hope that all of you are also enjoying a beautiful summer.

Summer sunset from our deck

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Cotswold—What’s a Cotswold?

A Cotswold trail marker
Always on the lookout for this
When planning the UK portion of our trip, daughter Shanti suggested that we visit the Cotswolds.  My first thought was “Who are they—some distant relative of Clark Griswold from National Lampoon’s European Vacation?” No, not quite.  

The Costswolds are a 79-mile long, 800 square mile British designated ‘Area of Outstanding Natural  Beauty’ (AONB) about two hours west of London.  Most of it is farmland. It also has over 4,000 miles of impressive stone walls and lots of sheep and sheep dung.  The word comes from ‘cots’ referring to sheep enclosures and ‘wold’ meaning gentile (limestone) hills.

One of countless "kissing gates" we navigated
Our first inn/pub  (on the right)
View from our lunch pub
We hiked about 10-14 miles for three days among them, eating at pubs along the way and spending the night at country inns, some of which were over 400 years old.  The area has a system of trails, which are basically right-of-ways along through and along the edges of fields, barnyards, and forests. Along the way we passed 800-year old villages, churches, and cemeteries.  We managed to dodge the rain showers, but not the ever-present sheep dung in the pastures.  Our bags magically showed up at the next B&B, often a 300-year old building.

Broadway Tower

Through many pastures with a view

old churchyard
Our experience can best be described as a delightful romp through the English countryside in the mornings, a leisurely lunch at a pub, and a long slog through nettles and sheep dung in the afternoons.  All along the way, the scenery was beautiful.  Evenings were spent enjoying good food (yes, the British can do more than fish and chips) and conversation over extended meals.

Typical Cotswold View
We met some interesting people, some cows, and lots of sheep.  What made this trip so unique is that we could walk from field to field, through farms, through pastures, forests, farmyards, and narrow alleyways between homes.  The landowners are all part of the cooperative system of rights of way through their land.  Volunteers maintain the 'kissing gates.' Unlike the States, the trail users treat the private property with respect and don't litter or harass the livestock .

Today, our third morning, we met one of the original founders of the Peace Corps, hiking most of the same route.  Unlike us, Paul and wife Mary were in their late 70’s, which we found inspiring.   We enjoyed learning about his early days in Pakistan when Sargent Shriver and Bill Moyers were setting up the Pakistan country desk. 
A fragrant lavender field

Mogul palace of some rich dude 
Along the way we had a couple of delightful surprises.  One was an immense and fragrant lavender farm.  Another was a mansion in the form of a 17th Century Indian Mogul palace.  

This time, a view when it was not cloudy
Old stone fence

newer stone fence

All in all, a very unique vacation.  What we enjoyed the most was the extended conversations with daughter Shanti and her boyfriend Alan (who is Australian, but works in London).  As the Greek crisis unfolds and the British budget was unveiled, we learned a lot about the economy, culture, and lifestyles of living in the UK. 

We have a couple more days in London, then head home on Sunday.  It’s a nice place to live, but we’ll be glad to return to our small world in Salem, OR on Sunday.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Alsace—Accessible Beauty and Flavor Everywhere

Village of  Eguisheim
Our six day bicycle trip with friends in Alsace is over, quickly morphing into a happy memory.  What will we remember the most?  Probably the food, wine, the intense heat, the cycling, and the camaraderie.    But most of all, we will remember the beauty.  Alsace has everything--quaint villages lined with cobblestone streets, flowers everywhere, verdant vineyards, forests, stork nests, 
flowers everywhere!
One of  countless stork nests
and farms.  Even in the villages where few tourists venture, the French make them look beautiful just for their own enjoyment.

The 100+ temperatures pretty much dominated our last two days.  But the scenery, cold beer, and camaraderie distracted us from it.  Friday we rode only 17 mostly flat miles, with a detour to a fascinating wine museum.  

An 800-year old wine press
Alsance Countryside
About the only places air conditioned in this part of France are the supermarkets.  So we added a one-hour layover to the frozen foods section of a supermarket as the 2:00 pm temperatures hit 106. 

Our destination of the 1300-year old village of Eguisheim, home of Pope Leon IX in 1040 was well worth it.  Our beautiful non- air-conditioned hotel was right in the center of everything, and as with the previous place, we had a great few from our room.

Eguisheim (Not my photo)
Our Eguisheim hotel on the left
cooling off
Refreshing swimming hole
Our last ride, 36 miles on the 4th of July, was our best.  Stopping along the way to soak our jerseys in public fountains, we ascended 1,000 feet on mostly shaded bike paths, to the town of Munster (as in Munster cheese), then to a forested park where Bertrand had a gourmet picnic lunch waiting for us.  He taught us the fine art of opening a wine bottle without a corkscrew, using a shoe and a big boulder.  (Wish I had known that in college!) 

After a swim we headed back down to the stifling plains, stopping at a public fountain and a swimming hole to cool off.  We topped the day off with a spectacular meal at a French restaurant  in the cooler highlands above the valley.  
Our last supper with guides Laura and Bertrand

Chain Tatoo

Morning view from our room
We can’t say enough good things about our guides, Bertrand and Laura Marchel, the owners of Cobbles and Corks Bicycle Tours. I met Bertrand last September when he was guiding my 850-mile Zion-Taos trip.  He was born and raised in France, the son of a famous chef and hotel owner in the village where we stayed our first night.  He used to own a French restaurant in Telluride, Colorado where they live from September-May.  Alex, their eight-year old son is a bundle of bilingual energy!  They spend the summers here—quite a lifestyle. 

Even without being able to speak French, Alsace is very user friendly and accessible with or without a bicycle.  We could go on and on about the food, wine, good times, the heat, our friends, the friendly people, and our charming guides.  Our photos don’t do the beauty justice.  You’ll just have to experience it for yourself. 

At a hot buy delightful gourmet picnic lunch
Now on to London to see our daughter Shanti and her boyfriend, Alan.  Then all four of us are off on a four-day hiking trip through the Cotswolds.  We hear that we might even need jackets!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Alsace--Wine, Castles, and Cooling off in the Rhine

Wednesday and Thursday had four things in common--extreme heat, quaint villages, comradery, and good food.  Other than that, they were very different.

We descended at breakneck speed (and heavy braking) from the cool heights of our stay at Trois Epis down to the wine country foothills of the Rhine Valley.  Our goal, a castle high on a distant hill, remained elusive and seemed unattainable until we actually got there.

We had lunch in a "4-Fleur" town, which is a French rating for how well the locals decorate with flowers.  Four is the highest, and it showed.
2006 REI Slovenia Trip Reunion
Lunch stop
When we departed for the 7 -mile, 2,000-foot climb to the castle after lunch, it was 97-104 degrees, depending upon whose bike computer you could believe. Fortunately it cooled off slightly as we neared our destination.

View from Hut-Koenigsbourg castle
The Haut-Koenigbourg Castle was worth the effort.  Built in the 12th century, it occupied a strategic position to watch over the wine and wheat routes to the North and the silver and salt routes from West to East. It was reduced to ruins by the Swedes during the Thirty Years' War and then abandoned. In 1899, Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to rebuild the castle entirely with the aim of turning it into a museum and at the same time a symbol of Alsace's return to Germany in 1877.  Germany lost Alsace after WWI, took in back in 1939, the lost it finally to France in 1945.  That explains why the food, architecture, language and some of the food are so similar.

Cooling off at a spring
View from our hotel
The descent in wet jerseys to the town of Ribeauville was a cool delight, topping off our mileage at 33 miles.  Actually, Ribeauville is also pretty cool delight, except for the stifling temperature of our room and the noise from the plaza below our open window at night.
Our Hotel

Today, Thursday, we changed our plans due to the heat and made it only a 32 mile flat ride.  We stopped at a bunker on the Maginot Line, occupied by the French until the Nazis avoided it and just waltzed into the Alsace region of France from Belgium with no resistance.

Maginot Bunker
The pause that refreshed!
Going in for seconds
We crossed the Rhine into Germany and plunged in fully clothed to cool off. Kathy had a minor wipe out going up a narrow path.  All the way back, she
struggled hard to keep up with the rest of us.  Finally, about one mile from our destination, we discovered that her rear brake was partially engaged.  We calculate her effort in the 100+ heat to be at least 50 miles. 

Dinner Venue
After a  leisurely afternoon trying to take naps in stifling non air conditioned rooms, we enjoyed the local beer, wine, and cuisine, which is a mix of French and German.  
Potato pancakes & salmon salad

Tomorrow?  It's supposed to get even hotter, so we will pare our mileage back even more and perhaps spend some time in cool wine  cellars.  Wherever you are, we hope you are staying cool.
Ribeauville-Alsace France